Southeast Asian Nations Struggle for Democracy

The Jakarta Post Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Philips J Vermonte

Recent events in Southeast Asia tell us one thing: Establishing a democratic system is a very long process, with lots of ups and downs. In Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is facing tough resistance from the people, particularly the urban middle-class, who have long felt the prime minister has the potential to become an authoritarian leader. As has been widely reported, Thailand is now in a political stalemate and is struggling to find a constitutional way of resolving it.

In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo a few days ago issued a controversial presidential proclamation imposing emergency rule on the country. As a result, President Arroyo also faces strong opposition from the people, and has been accused of behaving like ex-president Ferdinand Marcos in dealing with those who are critical of her government.

In the notorious military junta state Myanmar, the Peace and Development Council (SPDC) remains in power, and has shown no inclination to implement its promised “road map to democracy”. The SPDC has stubbornly rejected calls from the international community to provide more space for the people to participate politically.

On the other hand, we witnessed peaceful transfers of power in Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesians directly elected their President and Vice President in 2004, something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. After the severe economic crisis in 1997 and the political turmoil it caused during the period of 1997-1999, Indonesia has been slowly consolidating its democratic system. Some even call Indonesia the third largest democratic country in the world, yet only 10 years ago Indonesians lived under the undemocratic New Order government.

It is interesting to contrast between what is occurring in Thailand and the Philippines and recent history in Indonesia and Malaysia. The political events in Thailand and the Philippines suggest that mass politics in the two countries is tightly linked to formal political processes. For example, Thaksin plans to mobilize his supporters by staging a rally to counter the antigovernment demonstration carried out by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

In the Philippines, although Arroyo imposed a state of emergency — she lifted it Friday — mobilizing people is not an unprecedented political move in the country, which remembers very well the two successful People Power movements that toppled Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada from their respective presidencies just a few years ago. It was only last year that a huge number of Arroyo’s supporters went onto the streets to counter the anti-Arroyo demonstrations being carried out by opposition groups, contributing to Arroyo’s political survival during the crisis.

In fragmented societies, such as those in most Southeast Asian countries, political stability largely depends on the ability of the ruling classes in each society to overcome political, cultural or economical divides that exist among their people.

In his now classic article Consociational Democracy, Arendt Lijphart argued that when a society is split into sharp divisions, with no or very little overlapping membership or loyalty, when the political culture is deeply fragmented, movement toward moderate attitudes is absent. Meanwhile, political stability, in its democratic sense, depends on moderation.

One important variable for moderation that will result in political stability is the behavior of political leaders. It is true that elites might engage in strong competitive behavior, but there is also a possible scenario in which they might want to pursue cooperative behavior to counteract the destabilizing effects of fragmentation within their own society. It may take the forms of, among others, a grand coalition Cabinet or “cartel of the elite”. UMNO in Malaysia would be the closest example of this conceptual proposition.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Cabinet in Indonesia can also arguably be considered as another form of coalition since he has appointed several people who are not associated with his own party to serve as his ministers. It seems that the lack of accommodation among competing leaders explains why mass mobilization remains an effective tool to counter their opponents. The recent phenomena in Thailand and the Philippines are two cases in point.

However, placing too much emphasis on elites’ willingness to cooperate and thus bring about democracy and political stability is also dangerous. Such an emphasis assumes that they act benignly, free from self-interest.

Therefore, it needs to be noted that there is at least one condition that must be met in order for this sort of cooperation to work in a fragmented society: The perils of fragmentation must be understood. In a society where one political grouping is very strong and tends to dominate others, elites will not realize that their interest will be best served by cooperating with their rivals.

In this regard, the existence of a multiple balance of power is more favorable for cooperation. Crafting a multiple balance of power within the political system is something for which Southeast Asians still struggle.

The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta and is currently a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, U.S.

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